She said, "I don’t want to see any drooping shoulders! Keep your chins up! Move your feet and be the rockstars that you are! This is state ladies!" Our coach was referring to the fact that our team was practicing, not just as a regular season session, but we were practicing because we are slated to play in the USTA tournament to decide which team in each division is the best in the entire state of Georgia. We are going to the State Championships! And because of that fact, our coach wanted us to realize that everything matters, including our attitudes. "Beast Mode" is how she often refers to the desired state of mind we should embody during anything tennis-related but most especially once we step onto the court.
The essence of "Beast Mode" can be complicated and confusing because at times it might cut across the grain of principles you've relied on and practiced your whole life. But once you've bought into the mindset, its importance becomes clear and you'll find yourself salivating for the next opportunity to bring your opponents to their knees.
Don't engage with your opponent.
It was the third match of our ALTA season and my team's division standing was quickly heading south as we were collecting more spoils than victories. She walked onto the court and I recognized her immediately as one of my USTA teammates. We don't really know each other well because she is one of our singles players and she is typically on the court wrapping up her first set when my doubles partner and I are beginning our warm-up with our opponents. Plus, she didn’t tend to linger long after her matches so by the time my match was done she'd likely be home and showered already.
Anyway, I knew who she was and I thought she knew me. But as she entered the court, she walked right past me. She put her bag on the bench and said a few words to her partner who had arrived earlier. Her partner then made the introductions and mistakenly called me "Melinda" (a common mishap) but my USTA teammate corrected her saying, "It's Belinda, with a 'B'."
Ah-ha! She DID know who I was! But she maintained her steely incognito behavior with not so much as even a sideways glance in my general direction. I was starting to wonder if I'd inadvertently upset her somehow within the total of 7 minutes we were face-to-face during our season together.
The match was competitive and at one point, my partner asked, "Is it just my imagination or is she aiming for you when you are at the net?" "Aiming? I don't think so." I told her. "Using me as a target for ball placement? Probably." I realized it was confusing as I said it. My partner was already convinced that since she did not greet me as one might expect team members to do, she must be a bad apple. But I explained that our opponent and I are coached by the same person. Taking it to the net person instead of enduring long baseline cross-court points is good strategy when the moment is right. She had a couple of ripe situations where all I could do was try and put a racquet on the ball.
Throughout the match, there were no niceties exchanged, no small talk, and not a single compliment paid for any of the good shots that came off our racquets. She was in Beast Mode that day and guess what...she won.
No apologies. None.
Another long return. “I’m sorry. “ she said to her partner. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m so bad at this game.” The negative double-whammy that our coach hates. Missed returns happen but they are potentially salvageable with the next point. A discouraged, down-and-out player, however, is much more difficult to dig out of a hole. It’s so easy to fall in and sometimes takes super-human effort to crawl out. The trick is to stay above ground. That’s where your partner can help. She’s not there just to retrieve your first serve faults into the net, she’s there for moral support, or at least should be. It’s a partnership. Hellloo!
The more appropriate response to your errors, according to our coach, would be something on the lines of, “Ok, here we go. I’ve got this!” To which your partner would/should respond, “Yeah, you do! Let’s GO!” She may even smack you on the ass for emphasis. It all depends on how well you know each other. But what you do know is that she’s on your side. Bring your game and she’ll bring hers and pick each other up when necessary.
Rather than dwell on the missed opportunities, why not celebrate the awesome ones? It's all about attitude. Our coach encourages us to "Get BIG out there!" I've not actually witnessed a booming Serena Williams "C'mon!" exhibited during any of the matches I've played but I can imagine that even a 5'3", 110-pound woman could muster up enough confidence to attach a "C'mon" after a powerful winner to dispel all doubts from her opponents that another put-away shot is headed their way. Add a high-five with your partner, a smile, and a cocky skip in your step back to your position and you've got the makings of a take-no-prisoners attitude.
We all have the potential to be the champions. The proof is that we've made it to the tournament. Belief in our abilities is paramount to winning but all too often, it can be a large mountain with slippery slopes making it difficult to maintain the correct footing to stay on top. But saying "sorry" to your partner for any of your unforced errors doesn't reverse any lost points so the only reason to offer an apology would be if she was playing a perfect game and your game was negating all of her efforts. I've yet to see that at any level of tennis.
This is probably the most important fundamental to learn when trying to achieve Beast Mode and in hindsight, should have been at the top of this list. Having fun isn't one of those things that collide with what we strive for in our personal beliefs like the 2 theories mentioned above. Rather, it's one of the few things most of us seek out every day. But honestly, making sure that I am happy on the court comes way after I've checked my swing for follow-through, my footwork to make sure I'm in the correct position at ball-impact, my head placement during my serve, and my bag for hydration and snacks. But it’s surely the reason we spill out onto the courts several times every week and it is the first thing our coach gauges when the going gets tough, "Are you having fun?" And if your smart, the answer better be “Hell, Yeah!” otherwise, “Why are we even playing?” (Awesome quote from my friend, KH)
I don't recall the score, but I do remember the suspense. Theirs was the last match on the court. Extremely competitive and long points with exquisite shot-making. Our ladies were long and lean with wing-spans for days making it difficult for the opponents to get over them or around them once at the net. The other team, however, were power-houses who created opportunities, and many at that, to put away the ball.
At a set apiece and 6 all in the third set, they entered the tie-breaker. Both teams were showing signs of energy depletion but this was the final match of the city championship. The winner of this match would advance their team to the state championship. (Yes, I've already revealed that my team is going to State so apologies for the ill-timed spoiler alert.) But the point is not that we won, the point of the story is how their match was won.
Like the rest of the match, the tie-breaker was competitive. Each team always staying within a one-point margin of the other throughout the grueling challenge. But sometime during the tie-breaker, L turned up the level of her always jovial personality. She can't seem to contain her enthusiastic demeanor. Her merry-making attitude is constant. She's never without a smile, witty comment, or a compliment so thoughtful that blushing is a common response. And, what served as the antidote to prevail in the match was her ability to share the joy she was having with her partner. Suddenly, there was laughing and cajoling and even dancing between points. They were dancing on the court. I'm not talking waltzing or even swing dancing. Instead, there was some sort of shaking going on. Nonetheless, what was even better was that their energy was infectious rather than distracting. Their opponents actually seemed appreciative of the levity. They all relaxed and had fun.
To my sisters at state this weekend, I wish I was there. You've placed your daily family and work schedules and responsibilities in the hands of people you trust so that you can be present for the team during this tournament. Rest assured that you can put them out of your minds for this brief moment. Think not of yourselves as the convivial mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, employees, and volunteers you are in daily life. Instead, know that you are beasts who find sustenance in victory.
Beast Mode, ladies. Get it done.